The Man who Ate Life, and other Freshers’ Fair stories

by Oxford Students for Life

‘Can I eat them?’

After three days of Freshers’ Fair, you think you’ve heard everything. But this was a first.

‘No,’ I explained, ‘they’re for planting. They’re wildflower seeds.’

‘I get that, but I mean – can I eat them?’

I turned for help to our Publicity Officer Alisha, who’s a doctor.

‘You won’t die,’ she advised.

Freshers’ Fair is a friendly event, but it’s also definitely a competition. There are thousands of visitors and hundreds of stalls, and only a few seconds in which to grab someone’s interest as they wander through on their way to the Domino’s special offer booth. Bowls of free sweets, that old standby, are not permitted, so you have to try something else. People get inventive. The Roleplaying Society have impressive costumes, the Chess Society put a board on their table – though they admitted, when I came by, that nobody had yet challenged them to a game on the spot. At the Fencing Society I was told that, if I joined the mailing list, one of them would put on that helmet which makes you look like a giant fly. The Oxford Union hire a large mock-up of a boxing ring. Passing the Geography Society, someone cried out, ‘Have you ever wondered – Geography? What is that?!’, to which one answer is surely, ‘Yes, at about age 7.’

What could Oxford Students for Life offer, in this crowded marketplace? But the answer is already obvious. It was our job, surrounded by sports teams and music groups and charitable ventures, to affirm the one thing which makes all these excellent things possible – life itself. We decided to make our stall a little life-affirming beacon. We had bunting and lightbulbs and a vase of flowers. We displayed photos of past OSFL events. We pinned up aphorisms and scraps of poetry:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
(Mary Oliver)

Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Freshers stall

Because I had absolutely no hand in the design – all praise here to our Secretary, Megan – I think I’m allowed to pass on some of the compliments we kept getting. ‘This is the best stall I’ve seen,’ we heard more than once. ‘If there was a prize for best stall…’ someone told us. A neighbouring stallholder came over to admit she had ‘stall envy’.

Plus we had seeds. It turns out you can get a big bag of mixed wildflower seeds pretty cheap. And what student room doesn’t need a splash of colour and nature? So we offered little envelopes of seeds, attached to our termcard, for anyone who wanted to get involved by joining the mailing list. ‘We’re all about life,’ we told inquirers.

‘I didn’t realise,’ one remarked shrewdly, ‘that was the kind of life you guys were interested in.’

Take your point – but don’t you agree that flowers are one of the things that makes life worth living?

A shrug. ‘Fair enough. OK, I’ll sign up.’

People did sign up, too, in their hundreds. Most loved the seeds, while a few were unsure if they could offer them a good home – though, as we were able to point out, and we’d like to repeat this message for the benefit of anybody reading this blog who picked up one of our mini-envelopes: You do not need a plant pot in order to make use of the seeds. You can put some soil in an eggshell or a mug. But whether they accepted the seeds, or took an info leaflet or a termcard, the response was seriously encouraging. Some people knew us already. (‘I’ve been looking for you!’) (‘I already follow you on Facebook.’) Faces lit up as soon as we began our spiel. Some had been involved with pro-life work already, and wanted to carry on now they were in Oxford.

Freshers visitor

And – just as hearteningly – visitor after visitor told us that they really wanted to think more about these questions; that they didn’t know quite where they stood, and would like the opportunity to discuss the issues; that they were clear on abortion but less so on assisted suicide, or vice versa. We explained that, while we take a pro-life stance, we want to hear from everybody – the pro-choice, the undecided, the confused. People responded well to that. It’s one thing you hope for in a university, that you’ll be able to work out what you think, in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

As for the pro-choicers, they were mainly polite and good-natured. One of our neighbouring stallholders came over to cheerfully berate us every so often; eventually she concluded: ‘You seem like lovely people, but what you’re doing is… insane.’ But it was said with a smile. So were most things. Of course, not everybody was friendly. One man announced imperiously, ‘I disagree with you. Goodbye,’ and turned on his heel, which sounded like an epitaph for democratic pluralism if ever there was one, but that kind of response was in a tiny minority. Literally not a single person told me that, as a man, I had no right to be there.

All of which indicates that we are onto something. The debate about human life is not over. It is ongoing, and a lot of people are coming to it with unprejudiced eyes, eager to make up their own minds. As one fresher said to me, ‘it doesn’t get much more important than this, does it?’

Oh, and we never finished the story about the man who wanted to eat the seeds. Having ascertained that they weren’t lethal, he tore open the envelope and tipped it back like a packet of dry roasted. He chewed, swallowed, and frowned. Then he gave his verdict. ‘Pretty bland.’ By now, several of our neighbours had crowded round. One woman, from a charity in the row behind us, poked her head between the banners. ‘Do you eat everything you get given at Freshers Fair?’ she asked.

It was one of several memorable encounters. One of the nicest was speaking to a firmly pro-choice student. We offered a leaflet and she demurred. ‘But’ – she added, turning back – ‘I think it’s good you exist.’ We were touched. Same to you!

(Dan Hitchens)